Our penultimate batch of reviews from the British Film Institute’s 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival includes a Chinese mystery, Israeli anarchy, Norwegian secrets, and British complications.
Joe + Belle
Director: Veronica Kedar
Starring: Veronica Kedar, Sivan Levy, Romi Aboulafia
When Joe (Veronica Kedar) returns to Israel, she finds an unbalanced girl hanging out in her bath, razor in hand. Belle (Sivan Levy) is a young French girl who has just been let out of a mental hospital, and liked the look of Joe’s bathroom window. When Belle accidentally shoots Joe’s bothersome ex-boyfriend, the pair set about an absurd attempt to dump the body and elude the police. All the while, they’re hindered by the fluctuating will of Abigail (Romi Aboulafia), Joe’s friend and secret girlfriend of the man they’ve just killed.
Registering with an almost inexplicable amount of pleasure, Joe + Belle is an anarchic conflagration of rebellion, danger, romance and political implication. The first Israeli lesbian feature is spearheaded by Kedar, who, as writer, director and star, drives the film to unbounded success. She grounds the playfully absurdist tone of the morbid events in a Tel Aviv that feels simultaneously empty and buzzing with life. Her energetic, tactile direction never allows the film to fly too far out of reach – delivering such a revolutionary piece with such carefree panache is a commendable achievement in itself.
So even better, then, that Joe + Belle is also craftily incisive. Repeatedly heard within the diegesis are radio reports from Sderot, the on-going target of Qassam rocket attacks. One prominent soundbite of a child caught up in the attacks makes for a sharp contrast with the social and sexual freedoms Joe and Belle enjoy as they cavort around the country.
But there’s no righteous subconscious punishment here. Instead, Kedar celebrates the liberating joy of their anarchy, playfully sketching Joe’s ‘lesbianation’ as both girls shift into a sexy, intoxicating entanglement. The hinge between surreal romanticism and genuine danger is maintained until the very last frame, creating a blissfully unpredictable and enthrallingly original masterpiece.
Review by David William Upton
Director: Ole Giæver
Starring: Marte Magnusdotter Solem, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Nora (Marte Magnusdotter Solem) and Solveig (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are hiking up to the top of an enormous Norwegian mountain. Solveig is three months pregnant and everything she does seems to be rubbing the frosty Nora the wrong way. As they climb the mountain, Nora disappears for increasingly lengthy periods of time, causing the ruptures in their relationship to widen, making Nora confront a tragedy in their past which Solveig has been imploring her to face.
Filmed in vast widescreen, you’re unlikely to happen upon a film as beautifully shot as The Mountain very often. Cinematographer Oystein Mamen is attuned to every breath of wind on every blade of grass, working with the sound designers to make the mountain a third character in this sparse drama. They are also instrumental in constructing the crisp intensity of the women’s breathing and the physicality of their relationship. In the depths of the night, wrapped up inside their tent, we see the basic romantic intimacy of their relationship, the essential purity of their connection.
Solem and Petersen give life to the tense narrative with admirable fortuity, but nothing can prevent the film from becoming an inert, colourless drama. The schematics are far too familiar to be played out in such bare terms. Most audiences are likely to suss the secrets and the subsequent repercussions within fifteen minutes. The fragile beauty of the landscape soon loses its interest as the women enter onto empty grey plateaus, and the soft, eerie musical score loosens any remaining impact. Technically, this is practically impeccable, but it feels wasted in service of a limp narrative.
Review by David William Upton
Country: Hong Kong/China
Director: Simon Chung
Starring: Pierre-Matthieu Vital, Gao Qilun, Yu Yung Yung, Jiang Jian
In a distant city in southern China, a naked Westerner (Pierre-Matthieu) is found on the banks of the river. But as much as he has no clothes, he also is unable to speak. Unsure of what to do with him, the authorities take him to the local hospital where is tended by the loyal and caring nurse’s aide Jiang (Gao Qilun) and they soon strike up a wordless friendship with each other. When the Westerner is threatened to be taken to an asylum, Jiang helps him escape and soon start a mysterious and fraught journey on the run from the police, trying to uncover what has struck the foreigner dumb.
Simon Chung’s third film, made underground evading Chinese censorship laws, is a strange romantic mystery and a far cry from the ordinary. He toys with enigma masterfully, filling the unstated with ethereal characters and direction. Chung also brings stark beauty to the cinematography, capturing the handsome decay of the lesser cities and townships of rural China, adding a grounded and unassuming, yet brooding, air to the piece. Additionally, the script is filled with nuance and tempered twists which are impossible to tear yourself away from, keeping you desperate to find out where the next alluring ambiguity will lead.
Vital is utterly arresting as the lost foreigner. He manages to convey a wistfully disconnected vacancy in his trauma, but also finds time to bring fragile humanity to and deep pain too. Qilun, as his keepers and friend, bounces a wonderful sense of chemistry off Vital, trying to hold back his doting affection for the handsome Westerner whilst desperately trying to find the cure to his silent suffering. Yu Yung Yung, appearing mid-way through the film as Ning to only deepen the mystery, is also an enticing watch as a quietly terrifying unhinged, obsessive, and devious ‘Jezebel’.
The only criticism is that it’s a film of two parts. Two thirds in we get a reveal which sparks a considerable flashback to explain all. In itself this is a sweet romantic drama, full of colour, heart, and heartbreak. But it does leave you pinning a little for the curious and strange atmosphere Chung so brilliantly conjures and has kept you captivated with for the most part of the film.
However, the climax is devastating and astonishing, making this one of the most remarkable and affecting films of the festival.
Review by James Waygood
Director: Campbell X
Starring: T’Nia Miller, Kyle Treslove, Robyn Kerr, Simon Savory
‘Stud’ JJ (T’Nia Miller) is a black lesbian who works as a wedding photographer with her best friend, pretty gay boy Seb (Kyle Treslove). When JJ meets ‘fem’ Elle (Robyn Kerr), she finds herself caught between the demands of her new girlfriend and her longtime best friend. Add to the mix Seb’s rejection of ‘faggoty’ drug dealer Smack Jack (Simon Savory) in favour of lusting over a straight-acting man on Gaydar, and Stud Life is a lively portrait of gay urban life.
It’s a pity, then, that it feels so laboured and underdeveloped. Budget constraints obviously contribute heavily to the small, overexposed location shooting, but the close camera work feels like an imposition on the engaging performances of the actors. Worse, this style neutralises every space, so that the sense of danger inherent in the visibility of the alternative lifestyles with the London cityscape never connects, even when events take a darker turn. Director Campbell X tries to engage an audience directly through the self-aware inclusion of JJ’s video diaries, but these again feel exaggerated and awkward.
Stud Life’s narrative accelerates through familiar relationship dilemmas to make broad social points without really coming up with anything fresh. Even JJ, a conscious outsider, proves conventionally phobic of different types of sexual expression when Elle reveals her ‘alternative’ line of work, though this thread does give Kerr a chance to perform a disconcertingly raw breakdown that jars with the cowed performance space.
There is a certain charm to the blunt sense of humour, and the insularity of these outsiders’ world does provide a pleasant ease to the actors’ rapport. But Stud Life stutters to a predictable ending, and leaves you wishing these characters existed in a more vibrantly realised world with less clichéd emotional journeys.
Review by David William Upton
All films were shown as part of the British Film Institute’s 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (LLGFF). This took place between 23 March – 1 April 2012. To see more of our coverage, please visit our 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival section. For more information about the festival visit www.bfi.org.uk/llgff.
Featured Image: Speechless.
All images of the British Film Institute.